ITHACA, NY – Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil Tuesday night in memory of Cornell University President Elizabeth Garrett, who died Sunday night, weeks after publicly announcing her diagnosis with colon cancer.

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Gathered in Ho Plaza, the Cornell community lit candles, honored a moment of silence and told anecdotes about their experiences with Garrett, some sharing memories about her that happened in the days just before her death.

The vigil ended with the Cornell band playing Evening Song and Far Above Cayuga’s Waters, the Cornell alma mater. Afterward, attendees were encouraged to donate to cancer research in memory of Garrett.

Those who spoke painted a picture of an administrator who cared deeply about the students at Cornell, despite having held the office of president for less than a year before her death.

Michaela Olson, former drum major in the Cornell Big Red Marching band, recounted the story of her first meeting with Garrett.

She said that she first met Garrett after Cornell’s 150th birthday celebration, where the band had performed. After the event, students were approaching Garrett to chat and take pictures with her. Olsen said she was taken aback when Garrett immediately and excitedly asked for a picture with her, rather than the other way around.

“I think it really shows how brimming with energy and life she was,” Olsen said. “It meant so much to me and from that interaction I was so excited to have her as our president.”

Olsen highlighted how committed Garrett was to fostering a sense of community at Cornell. “We knew that she shared a hope that this campus would not only be a place of learning, but be a home,” Olsen said.

Ryan Lombardi, the Vice President of Student and Campus Life, also gave an emotional account of Garrett’s impact.

Lombardi, who was appointed shortly after Garrett, said he knew from the very first meeting that Garrett was something special.

“[After meeting Garrett] I went home and told my wife there was no question I would work for her if given the opportunity — it was that incredible,” Lombardi said. “I think most people who had a chance to interact with president Garrett felt that same connection, that same inspiration.”

Lombardi said that above all else, Garrett’s driving philosophy was making sure that Cornell did right by its students.

He shared how he had been in contact with President Garrett in the days before her passing and how, even on the eve of a major surgery, her biggest concern was for the students. He explained Garrett’s distress at having to miss an event that had been scheduled due to undergoing treatment:

“When I woke up on Friday morning, I had an email from President Garrett, at about 4:30 in the morning it said, ‘Please tell the students that I’m so sorry that I won’t be able to see them today. I feel terrible that I can’t be there to listen to their concerns, and hear from them. Please let them know much I care about them, how much I respect them, and how proud I am to be their president,’” Lombardi said.

After the vigil, Lombardi shared with us more thoughts about what made Garrett so exceptional.

“She was so smart. I’ve worked in higher ed for a long time and President Garrett was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” Lombardi said. “She also consumed information like nobody I’ve ever met. You could give her a briefing 500 pages long the night before your meeting and she’d know every ounce of it.”

“She was visionary,” he continued. “She wanted to challenge the status quo in higher education, which is actually one of the things that drew me to come work for her. It wasn’t enough for her to say, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it, this is the way we should continue to do it.’ She wanted to see how higher education could move forward in changing the ills of our world.”

And again, Lombardi highlighted just how much Elizabeth Garrett cared about the Cornell community. He gave another anecdote, detailing Garrett’s response to an Ithaca Voice story about a Cornell student who had chosen to stop wearing her hijab for fear of anti-Muslim backlash.

“She wrote me an email saying, ‘Have we checked in with that student? I’m very worried about her, that she feels that way in our community,’” Lombardi recounted. “The fact that president Garrett, while she’s in the hospital getting treatment, sees that story and sends me a note and says, ‘Have we checked on that student?’ She just cared. She cared deeply.”

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.